S.C. Johnson opens Research Tower to public

Since the Research Tower building at the S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. corporate headquarters in Racine opened in 1950 the structure, designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, has largely been shielded from the public.

But now with free tours of the building beginning May 2, visitors will be able to step inside the workspace to learn how Wright’s innovation in design has inspired innovation in product development at S.C. Johnson.

“Frank Lloyd Wright’s creative vision and iconic architecture have served as a source of inspiration for our business for more than 75 years,” said Kelly Semrau, senior vice president of global corporate affairs, communication and sustainability at S.C. Johnson. “There is no place that demonstrates this more than the Research Tower, where some of our leading brands were created, and we’re eager to open it to the public for the first time.”

Night lights accentuate the dimensions of the tower’s square floors and circular mezzanines.

Wright’s impact on the S.C. Johnson headquarters dates back to 1936 when H.F. Johnson Jr., the third generation leader of the company, approached him to help create a campus that would inspire the S.C. Johnson team.

From their initial conversations emerged several Wright-designed buildings, including the Administration Building, opened in 1939, and the Research Tower. Both are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Research Tower, which reaches 153 feet tall and weighs 16 million pounds, is anchored by a unique “taproot” core. That core measures 13 feet in diameter and runs 54 feet into the ground with the capacity to support all 15 floors. The floors alternate between square-shaped levels and circular mezzanines, with an additional square floor on the second story.

“The inspired design of the tower – Wright’s first executed ‘taproot’ structure – created an inspired workplace that empowered S.C. Johnson’s researchers to think creatively and develop innovative products,” said Jam Stewart, director of global public affairs at S.C. Johnson.

Within the first decade of the Research Tower’s opening, researchers had already developed many of those products, such as Raid, Glade, OFF! and Pledge.

In 1982, the company closed the Research Tower as it opened a second research facility, Louis Laboratories, at its home campus. Safety concerns stopped lab operations in the tower as scientists, who handled flammable chemicals and gases, could only exit the building through one elevator and a single narrow staircase no wider than 29.5 inches.

The tower at the height of construction in 1949.

“A decision was made to close the tower and open a new research facility after the company determined that modern upgrades for safety would compromise Wright’s original vision,” Stewart said.

S.C. Johnson continued to light the Research Tower every night until 2013, when it launched an extensive interior and exterior renovation project. The renovation, completed over the course of a year, equipped the tower with more energy-efficient features and new light fixtures. It also restored the tower’s 21,170 bricks, replaced and cleaned thousands of Pyrex glass tubes supporting the tower’s windows, and added fresh coats of Cherokee red paint to the building to draw out its original color.

Today, S.C. Johnson has designated three stories within the tower for use. The main and mezzanine levels of the third floor showcase exhibits for public exploration and the second floor is used for office space. The other 12 floors remain unoccupied and will for the foreseeable future, according to the company. With only one elevator and one narrow stairwell, the tower does not meet current building codes for occupying a third level or higher floor. Implementing changes to bring it up to code would compromise the design of the building, S.C. Johnson said, and the company would prefer to preserve Wright’s vision.

The tower’s exhibits, split into four areas, break down the “architectural achievements and intricacies” and Wright’s taproot structure, according to S.C. Johnson. The exhibits have also been designed to transport visitors back to the 1950s laboratories used for product development with “a full mock-up” of the original workspaces.

“The exhibits shine a new light on the innovations in research and development that emerged in the tower and how the architecture stimulated the scientists’ creativity and cutting-edge advancements,” Stewart said.

Drawings, photos and correspondence exchanged between Wright and H.F. Johnson Jr., also are featured in the exhibits and provide additional context to Wright’s relationship with S.C. Johnson and his mark on the company.

“With so many historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings on the company’s corporate headquarters, S.C. Johnson has a long-standing commitment to preserving his architectural legacy,” Stewart said. “Naturally, where possible, the company looks to bring in the public to experience Wright’s buildings firsthand through our extensive tours and now new exhibits dedicated to his innovations and impact, including this iconic cantilevered tower.”

S.C. Johnson’s tours of the tower are slated to run through Sept. 27. To schedule a tour, visit www.scjohnson.com/visit.

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